From crowns to counseling

Former Miss Kansas Hannah Klaassen shares her journey from wearing the crown to pursuing a career in certified mental health counseling.

Contributed photo

Senior year of high school – one of my best friends is diagnosed with depression and starts taking medication for her mental illness.

Freshman year of college – my beloved Grammy is diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 76-years-old.

Sophomore year of college – I hold my college best friend as she cries in her bed in the midst of another panic attack. Her mom texts me, sometimes daily, to make sure her daughter’s depression, anxiety, and ADHD aren’t keeping her from living a full life.

These are just a few of the events that have shaped my life and created a passion for mental health like I have never felt before. My name is Hannah Klaassen, and my powerful need to advocate for those with mental illness is what prompted me to compete for the title of Miss Kansas.

Hannah Klaassen

In June 2018, my life was changed forever when I heard the words “Your new Miss Kansas is…Hannah Klaassen!” I knew that the Miss America organization could give me the platform and the motivation to make a real difference in how mental health is talked about, and I was thrilled to have this incredible opportunity. I mean, how many 19-year-old girls get the chance to travel around the country advocating for a cause they love and wear a crown while
doing it?

Every one of us has mental health (whether it’s positive or negative), and I would bet that every person, at least in the United States, has been affected in some way by mental illness.

Even celebrities have begun to talk candidly about their own battles with mental illness, including Demi Lovato, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Kristen Bell. The front cover of the April 2018 People magazine even featured Mariah Carey with the headline, “My Battle with Bipolar Disorder.”

The more we talk about depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and suicide, the less stigmatized it becomes. The more we reach out to our friends and family members, letting them know that their feelings are VALID, the less they will hide their “negative” emotions and the more they will start opening up without us even asking.

Photo courteousy of Miss America Orgainzation

This is vital to a person’s whole health. We are not just a body. We are a body, mind, and spirit, and we need health in all areas to live a holistically healthy life.

During my year of service, I had the opportunity to take a mental health first aid class, connect with numerous mental health centers and therapists, and speak in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and churches about mental health.

My favorite thing about being Miss Kansas, though, was connecting with students ages 0-18 and talking to them about what it means to have a mental illness, and how there is ALWAYS someone to talk to and love on them (even if it was just me, I would be there for them). From September to May, I was invited into elementary, middle, and high schools to talk about my platform “The Mind Matters,” and I loved getting to know the students.

It was not until my senior year of high school for someone to tell me that my feelings are

valid, and no one could tell me that I shouldn’t be feeling sad or angry or scared, and I knew that I wanted to get that message across to every student I could throughout my year of service.

Hannah Klassen

Talking to 7th and 8th grade girls about their own struggles was especially precious. That age was so receptive to what I had to say. They shared their experiences with me and I would hug them and make sure they knew my direct messages on social media were always open.

My greatest accomplishment in advocating for mental health happened in May of 2019, which was very fitting as May is annually Mental Health Awareness Month! I had been working all year to figure out what I wanted my legacy to be after giving up my crown.

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I wanted promote the mental health resources school-age children have available to them. Teenagers who do not have the familial or financial support to take their mental health into their own hands need help. My goal was to put the Crisis Text Line number and Suicide Hotline phone number on the back of every student I.D. card in Kansas public schools.

I went to the United School Administrators of Kansas in our state capital, Life Touch photography (who prints most school I.D. cards), and even met with the Kansas Attorney General to discuss this plan. I wasn’t quite sure who could help me accomplish this goal, but I would talk to any connection I had to try and make it happen.

After being told that “no one uses student I.D. cards anymore,” “where
would the funding come from?” and “I don’t think that would make a difference,” I decided itwas time to take a different route, as this plan wasn’t going anywhere, and my time was running out. As a state titleholder, you receive just one year to make an impact in your community.

The United School Administrators of Kansas were incredible allies in my advocacy for Kansas students, and they funded around 3,000 “You Matter” bracelets with the Crisis Text Line number (741-741) on them! This wasn’t automatically put into every public school, but it was a start.

As I always say, “if it makes a difference in ONE person’s life, it will have been worth it.”

During Mental Health Awareness Month in 2019 (1 month before giving up my Miss Kansas title), I visited Kansas schools presenting on what mental illness is, how to self-care, how to speak up and tell someone what you’re feeling. I asked each student that did not want a bracelet to pass one on to someone they believed could benefit from the reminder.

Although I was making progress in Kansas, I thought about how many students I wouldn’t be able to meet. I wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted a bracelet could get one. So, we started sending out bracelets to anyone who asked across the U.S.!

Although I was making progress in Kansas, I thought about how many students I wouldn’t be able to meet. I wanted to make sure that anyone who wanted a bracelet could get one. So, we started sending out bracelets to anyone who asked across the U.S.!

Although my year of service was successful, I do want to say that my year as Miss Kansas was one of the hardest years I have ever experienced. I LOVED my job, don’t get me wrong. This job, however, required me to be alone a lot while traveling and away from family and friends. I was exhausted from constant speaking engagements and appearances. I took a full year off of school for my approximately 500 appearances.

Contributed photo

I remember feeling anxiety, paranoia, and experiencing a few panic attacks from the time I got back from Miss America in mid-September until I had about a week of break time over Christmas. This was completely new to me.

It stemmed from not getting enough sleep and from being alone on the road so often. I was anxious a lot, even throwing up from anxiety at times.

I realized that I was experiencing symptoms in myself that I had been seeing in other people for years, and it was hard to accept that I was not mentally okay either.

I learned more about true self-care than ever before, knowing that it was more than bubble baths and eating chocolate and watching a favorite TV show. Self-care became calling my family while driving to a Miss Kansas appearance, turning off my phone when I needed to, getting adequate sleep, praying and telling those close to me that I was struggling.

Mental health took on a new meaning to me, now that it was incredibly personal.

I am so thankful for that time of struggle, as I want to be able to
empathize with those who have a mental illness. I want to KNOW what is happening in their brains and how it’s affecting their lives so that I can encourage them authentically.

Now one year after giving up my title, I am completing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology and cannot wait to start my Master’s program next year where I will become a certified mental health counselor and dance/movement therapist! My year as Miss Kansas solidified this goal. I want to specifically
help some of our most vulnerable people, aged 0-22, with their minds, and let everyone know that they are needed on this earth. You are loved and important. And your mind matters!

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